WISCONSIN DELLS — This past summer, John Wentz had the opportunity to help a neighbor on his grazing operation after he had a knee replaced. Tasked with moving 50 head of Black Angus cattle, Wentz had the challenge of doing it without the help of stock dogs, which he has used successfully on his own sheep operation for many years.
“It forced me to figure out other ways to get them moving when they needed to go,” he said. “Some of the things I would have normally done I had to change because I only had myself and a four-wheeler.
“It really was a handicap for me.”
Wentz has more than 20 years of grazing experience with dogs; he now owns and operates Big Yellow Boots Stock Dog Training, a facility in south-central Wisconsin that specializes in training dogs and their owners for herding.
But before he got his first stock dog, he had no background in dog training — in fact, he owned a Corgi and a Weimaraner, which aren’t exactly the perfect herding dogs. Through attending training clinics, connecting with experts and reading up about the subject, he was able to apply what he learned and retrain a dog he had purchased.
He told attendees of his session at the GrassWorks Grazing Conference that there are many things to consider before buying a stock dog, including purchase cost, shelter, cost of food and how it will be trained. The purchase cost for a stock dog can vary from $2,500 to $12,000 for a fully trained animal, but he advised that a stock dog isn’t like a car — its owner will need to learn how to properly use the dog.
If a grazier is thinking about purchasing a dog and using it on their operation, he recommended attending training clinics, even before buying the animal. Wisconsin seems to have more training clinics for dogs than any other state, Wentz said, and they can be looked up online by visiting the Wisconsin Working Stock Dog Association website at wwsda.com.
“Find a clinic or someone near you that trains dogs and go and watch,” he said. “You may not learn anything, but you’ll have lots of questions.”
Wentz also read a lot about stock dogs and how to train them, suggesting two books that served as great resources for him: “Lessons from a Stock Dog — A Training Guide” by Bruce Fogt and “A Way of Life: Sheepdog Training, Handling and Trialling” by Barbara Collins and H. Glyn Jones.
“Read them once and read them again,” he said.
He also recommended connecting with someone who has used stock dogs on their grazing operation who may be able to offer tips on training.
“If I hadn’t connected with someone, I wouldn’t be nearly where I’m at with it today,” he added.
Proper training for a herding dog is extremely important, with Wentz reminding those in attendance that the dog is an employee of your operation — one that doesn’t call in sick, although it may be late a few times. A properly trained dog can be a huge asset, providing the help of as many as five people when it comes to wrangling livestock on small operations.
At his facility, Wentz uses a round pen for training purposes, something he recommended graziers who are training dogs should have to keep everything under control during a training session. It has proved especially useful for the handlers he has worked with as most of them are hobbyists who train their stock dogs for competition.
“It takes a fair amount of time to train one, but try to stack the deck in your favor from the beginning by selecting the right dog,” he said. “Then the trick is raising the dogs properly.”